All About Food: Grill or barbecue? Coal, gas or briquettes?

'Tis the season for barbecues. With Father's Day and Fourth of July on our doorstep, thoughts turn to the thrill of the grill.

Barbecuing may be America's oldest competitive outdoor sport. The battles are endless. Since that first day when lightning struck a woolly mammoth and men in animal mini-skirts grunted their appreciation of the superior taste of the meat, to the dry-rubbed, pecan-smoked, indirectly heated pork butt, cooked by the all-American male dressed demurely in a printed apron, stylish hat and long gloves, men have debated the nature of "true" barbecue.

The history of barbecue in the United States traces its roots to pioneer days and poverty. Smoking was a way of cooking meat that preserved it, and slow cooking tenderized it for early settlers, who didn't have dentists.

The origin of the word "barbecue" has long been debated. The two most popular theories are (a) it derives from the French for "whiskers to tail" (barbe a queue) or (b) it comes from the Indian word for " meat smoking apparatus" (barbacoa).

Americans spend more than $400 million a year on charcoal briquettes. It has often been said that the inventor of the briquette was none other than Henry Ford, using wood scraps left over from the manufacture of wooden automobile parts, and that his friend Thomas Edison designed the factory that produced them.

However, Robert Wolke, in his book "What Einstein Told His Cook," states that this is legend. The actual inventor and the man who patented the process was Orin F. Stafford, a professor at the University of Oregon. Ford then jumped in and built the factory to manufacture them on a large scale.

Today, the debate rages over which are better, briquettes or lumps of hardwood. Briquettes have been the favorite fuel of the multitudes because they are uniform and burn evenly, but they contain additives and create more ash when they burn.

Lump coal can burn hotter and it comes in a variety of different woods that lend a pleasant residue of flavor to the food. However, the lump coal varies in size and doesn't always char evenly.

Of course, there is another school altogether that swears by gas. Almost 70% of Americans own gas grills. Even Iron Chef Bobby Flay says, "Gas is easier to light, control and clean," but he also says in his book "Boy Gets Grill": "Charcoal is a lot more work but gives food a smokiness that gas can never quite imitate."

There are many other controversial issues to be fought out as well. Mop versus brush, for instance. Mops are sloppier but hold more sauce, while the brush can paint a glaze with more precision and control. Rivals spar over the proper technique: wet versus dry, direct versus indirect, hickory versus mesquite, Texas versus Kansas.

Sauces are an entire category unto themselves, basically related to geographic differences. There is the vinegar type in eastern North Carolina. Then, as you move west, tomato is the base, and the closer you get to Texas, the darker and sweeter the sauces. Kansas style is slow-smoked for a long time, then bathed with a thick tomato- and molasses-based sauce. There are more regional styles than you can shake a mop at.

Another issue seldom mentioned is the huge difference between grilling and barbecuing, even though the frequently expensive equipment bears the name barbecue grill.

Let me explain: Grilling means the food is placed within several inches of a very hot, smoke-free fire and cooked quickly. This would be the process used for things like steaks, sausages, chops, kabobs, burgers, chicken parts, whole fish and shrimp.

On the other hand, barbecuing consists of long periods (several hours) of slow, relatively low-temperature cooking generally over a smoky fire, with the food confined to some sort of pit or other enclosure. This method works with beef, pork ribs, pork shoulder or brisket, intermittently slathered with a mop full of some secret sauce.

So get out that grill and have a happy Father's Day!

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at

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